A Summer of Love
By Andrew Bay
Lenny Kravitz’s album, Let Love Rule, was released more than thirty years ago and is still a hugely important to me. Although my wife and I hadn’t met yet, we’d both separately bought the album in the summer of 1990, and we still love playing the record to this day.
That summer was a transitional time. I had just completed my first year at university, studying English. I had really enjoyed discovering the works of William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge and Lord Byron, who were still looming large over the standard literature curriculum at the Nanterre University in Paris.
I was spending these hot, never-ending summer days in my room, plucking away through the Pink Floyd and Beatles songs I was trying to learn on my guitar, playing table tennis with my brothers Nicky and Frank, and listening to FM radio at my parents’ place.
This is how I discovered Lenny‘s first single, ‘I Build This Garden For Us’, which was getting a lot of radio airplay at the time and sounded like nothing else I’d heard before. At the time, the big radio songs were ‘Vogue’ by Madonna, ‘You Can’t Touch This’ by MC Hammer and ‘Groove Is In The Heart’ by Dee Lite – slick records with booming bass lines. By contrast, Lenny’s single had dirty guitar chops, backed up with a psychedelic string arrangement, a funky rhythm section and John Lennon-like lyrics about a magical garden where there would be ‘no war, no racial prejudice’, where ‘we will live each day in peace and hope that we will one day reach the rest of the world.’ I had no idea what the future held for me, but ‘Let Love Rule’ felt like the perfect companion piece, the soundtrack to let my carefree thoughts wander during that summer.
As soon as I bought the album, I started playing it continuously. The songs and the sound of the record gave me this infectious feeling that the spark of the 1960s countercultural idealism hadn’t quite been snuffed out yet. I felt like I was living in my own private Summer of Love. I was inspired because the Reagan and Thatcher era’s glorification of yuppie aspirations was still present in mainstream culture. The overall sound of Lenny’s music, however, was a redemptive blend of psychedelic rock, R&B, gospel and Top 40 pop chart music, all played, performed and recorded by this charismatic one-man band.
Over the years, my wife and I have traded stories with other fans of the record who felt drawn to its enduring power as a classic, hippie, ‘peace and love’ manifesto. Let Love Rule emerged at a time when popular music was in a state of quiet disintegration. Dance music was becoming increasingly sterile; the KLF and Technotronic were riding high in the charts but they didn’t have the same edge as the Beatmasters or S’Express; hip hop had found its way into the mainstream but lost its political relevance; and the days of heavy metal bands were decidedly numbered. This was unfolding just before the much needed grunge explosion of 1991 completely changed the music industry landscape. So Let Love Rule wasn’t exactly a product of its time but, then again, nor was Lenny Kravitz, an inimitable musician born to an interracial couple in 1964, in a largely still segregated America.
When I started reading up on Lenny’s life, I discovered to my surprise that his mother, Roxie Roker (born in Miami in 1929, to a Bahamian father and a mother from Georgia) had graduated in theatre and drama from Howard University in 1952, and subsequently travelled to England to study at the Shakespeare Institute (Stratford-upon-Avon) and the University of Birmingham. Returning to the United States, Roxie became a major figure in the Negro Ensemble Company in New York and the wider theatre community, regularly performing on Broadway and in independent theatre productions. In 1962, she married TV producer Seymour Kravitz and Lenny was born two years later. Lenny clearly inherited so much of his mother’s groundbreaking artistic spirit. In 1975, the Kravitz family moved to Los Angeles. Roxie starred in a sitcom called The Jeffersons. It caused a seismic shift in American culture as the first show on prime-time television to feature a married interracial couple (Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover). Recalling the show, I only remember the ‘larger than life’ character George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) for his energetic and physical comedic performance. So I didn’t really pick up on Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover’s characters.
Roxie’s real life interracial marriage was much less harmonious. Seymour Kravitz was born in a New York Jewish Ukrainian middle-class family in 1924, and served in the US army with great distinction during World War II and the Korean War. Following in his footsteps by enrolling in the army, Seymour’s brother had been killed in action. And as Lenny explained later on, Seymour was a stern and intimidating disciplinarian, haunted by his brother’s death. Lenny was named after his uncle, and I wonder to what extent his drive for success may have been influenced by his father’s desire to make up for the loss of his sibling.
Although Seymour was professionally successful, he felt overshadowed by his wife’s considerable fame. He embarked on a series of affairs which led to the couple’s eventual separation.
Lenny, then, grew up in an environment filled with considerable opportunity, yet marred by destructive turbulence. Listening to his music, this is directly reflected in the powerful expressiveness of songs he wrote for his debut album. His bass playing is muscular and rounds off with nervous energy in songs such as ‘Freedom Train’, ‘Fear’, and ‘Mr Cab Driver’, cutting right through the grooves of the record.
The string section‘s lyricism intoxicates with a swath of dynamic climaxes which linger on repeatedly in the choruses of ‘I Build This Garden For Us’ and ‘Be’. And Lenny plays the funky, ‘four to the floor’ drums on all the tracks, too. East to West Coast, he’d lived his life rock-strewn through the radio. He could play the big guitars through the fuzz box of ‘Song For Sister Someone’ and the distortion of ‘Stop Dragging Around’. He was plugging straight into the vinyl records collection burning inside his mind – Curtis Mayfield, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Charlie Mingus.
Lenny Kravitz was just twenty-four years old when he locked himself in a studio with his longtime friend and engineer, Henry Hirsch, to record those songs. It seems like a lifetime since I was first impressed by Let Love Rule, but I still find it very life-affirming. The record deals with the story of someone who could have been thwarted by a life of excessive privilege, mixed with the toxic self destruction which can come with power and fame.
We can all be overwhelmed and submerged by the darkness of what can’t be comprehended. There’s no end to the power we have to cause hurt and pain or give love to each other; both are interwoven in a strange dance of elation and agony. Lenny Kravitz loved his parents; their relationship was deeply complex, highly volatile and impactful on his psyche. With his music, he found a way to exorcise his demons.
In the summer of 1990, I was transitioning into my early twenties. I wasn’t sure what career path lay in store for me, and I hadn’t yet met my wife. There were plenty of unforeseen hard bumps and walls to run into. Lenny’s songs were already conjuring the emotional redemptive power of love, and how life is lived to the fullest not by shunning suffering, but by tirelessly trying to keep moving on, because it’s always too late to stop now.
Lenny went on to become a superstar, writing hit songs for Madonna, Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger. With his electric dreadlocks, mock crocodile skin boots and faded denims, he has retained his cool demeanor over the years in the media.
Pop songs and records aren’t necessarily the most important things in life. But they may be, perhaps, what Let Love Rule still is to me: the things that we can most readily fall back on, to elevate ourselves, beyond the overwhelming moments in our lives. Lenny’s songs still inspire me to embrace my creative drive and seek original expression in my work. ‘My Mama said that your life is a gift’, Lenny famously sang in one of his songs, and just like him, I feel like, ’I’m always on the run’ looking for that gift, whatever it may be.